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Colliding Branes
by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling’s most recent exploits include a stint as the “Visionary in Residence” for the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam last November. In September, he keynoted the Austin Game Developers Conference while publicly appearing as a time traveler. The author’s new SF novel The Caryatids is just out from Del Rey. Rudy Rucker’s latest pair of novels depict a near-future Earth in which every object becomes conscious. The first, Post-singular, is just out in paperback from Tor, and the second, Hylozoic, will appear in hardcover in May. You can find current information about Rudy’s work on his blog at www.rudyrucker.com/blog. In their fifth collaboration together for Asimov’s, the authors bring us an unparalleled portrayal of what the end of the world will mean to the blogosphere.


“But why call this the end of the universe?” said Rabbiteen Chandra, feeling the dry night air beat against her face. The rollicking hearse stank of cheap fried food, a dense urban reek in the starry emptiness of the Nevada desert. “At dawn our universe’s two branes collide in an annihilating sea of light. That’s not death, technically speaking—that’s a kalpa rebirth.”

Angelo Rasmussen tightened his pale, keyboard-punching hands on the hearse’s cracked plastic wheel. His hearse was a retrofitted 1978 Volvo, which ran on recycled bio-diesel cooking-oil. “You’re switching to your Hindu mystic thing now? After getting me to break that story?”

“I double-checked my physics references,” Rabbiteen offered, with an incongruous giggle. “Remember, I have a master’s degree from San Jose State.”

Rabbiteen knew that this was her final road trip. She’d been a good girl too long. She tapped chewing tobacco into a packet of ground betel-nut. Her tongue and her gums were stained the color of fresh blood.

“The colliding branes will crush the stars and planets to a soup of hard radiation,” she assured Angelo. “Then they rebound instantly, forming brand-new particles of matter, and seeding the next cycle of the twelve-dimensional cosmos.” She spread her two hands violently, to illustrate. “Our former bodies will expand to the size of galactic superclusters.”

Angelo was eyeing her. “I hope our bodies overlap.” He wore a shy, eager smile. “Given what you and I know, Rabbiteen, we might as well be the last man and woman on Earth.” He laid his hand on her thigh, but not too far up.

“I’ve thought that issue through,” said Rabbiteen, inexpertly jetting betel spit out the window. Blowback stained her hand-stitched paisley blouse. “We’ll definitely make love—but not inside this hearse, okay? Let’s find some quaint tourist cabins.”

As professional bloggers, Rabbiteen and Angelo knew each other well. For three years, they’d zealously followed each other’s daily doings via email, text messages, video posts, social networking, and comment threads.

Yet they’d never met in the flesh. Until today, their last day on Earth—the last day for the Earth, and, in stark fact, also for Earth’s solar system, Earth’s galaxy, Earth’s Local Group galactic cluster, and Earth’s whole twelve-dimensional universe shebang.

The end was near, and Rabbiteen didn’t care to watch the cosmos collapse from inside her cramped room in her parents’ house in Fremont. Nor did Angelo want to meet the end in his survivalist bunker in the foothills of the Sierras near Fresno—a bunker which, to untrained eyes, resembled an abandoned barn in the middle of a sun-killed almond farm.

So, after a dense flurry of instant messages, the two bloggers had joined forces and hit the great American road together, blasting one last trump from the hearse’s dirge-like horn, a mournful yet powerful blast that echoed from Rabbiteen’s parents’ pink stucco house and all through the table-flat development of a thousand similar homes.

Chastely sipping biodiesel through the apocalyptic traffic, they’d made it over Tioga Pass onto Nevada’s Route 6 by midnight. They were out well ahead of mankind’s last lemming-like rush to universal destruction.

“I’ve been obsessing over Peak Oil for years,” Angelo confessed. He was feeling warm and expansive, now that Rabbiteen had promised him some pre-apocalypse sex. “As a search-term, my name is practically synonymous with it. But now I can’t believe I was such a sap, such a pissant, when it came to comprehending the onrushing scope of this planet’s disaster! I was off by . . . what is it? By a million orders of magnitude?”

Rabbiteen patted his flanneled arm supportively. Angelo was just a political scientist, so he was really cute when he carried on about “orders of magnitude.”

He was rueful. “I was so worried about climate change, financial Singularities, and terror attacks in the Straits of Hormuz. And all the time the parallel branes were converging!” He smacked the Volvo’s cracked dashboard with the flat of his pale hand. “I’m glad we escaped from the dense urban cores before the Apocalypse. Once people fully realize that cosmic string theory is unraveling, they’ll butcher each other like vicious animals.”

“Don’t insult our friends the animals,” said Rabbiteen, flirtatiously bending her wrists to hold her hands like little paws.

Rabbiteen’s “What Is Karmic Reality?” blog cleverly leveraged her interest in scientific interpretations of the Upanishads into a thriving medium for selling imported Indian clothes, handicrafts, and mosaics.

Angelo, unable to complete his political science doctorate due to skyrocketing tuition costs, had left Stanford to run his own busy “Ain’t It Awful?” website. His site tracked major indicators for the imminent collapse of American society. The site served to market his print-on-demand tracts about the forthcoming apocalypse, which earned him a meager living.

The end of the Universe had begun with a comment from trusted user “Cody” on Rabbiteen’s blog. Cody had linked to a preliminary lab report out of Bangalore’s Bahrat University. The arXiv dot-pdf report documented ongoing real-time changes in the fine-structure constant. Subtle dark and light spectral lines hidden in ordinary light were sashaying right up the spectrum.

Rabbiteen had pounced on this surprising news as soon as it hit her monitor, deftly transforming the dry physics paper into an interactive web page with user-friendly graphic design. To spice up her post for user eyeballs, she’d cross-linked it to the well-known Cyclic Universe scenario. This cosmological theory predicted that the fundamental constants of physics would change rapidly whenever two parallel membranes of the cosmic twelve dimensions were about to—as laymen put it—”collide.”

Although Rabbiteen didn’t feel supremely confident about the cataclysmic Cyclic Universe scenario, that theory was rock-solid compared to the ramshackle Inflationary notion that had grown up to support the corny, old-school Big Bang.

Cosmologists had been tinkering with the tired Big Bang theory for over fifty years. Their rickety overwrought notions had so many patches, upgrades, and downright mythologies that even the scheme of a cosmos churned from a sea of galactic cow milk by a giant Hindu cobra seemed logical by comparison.

After Rabbiteen’s post, Angelo had horned into the act, following a link to Rabbiteen posted by that same user Cody on Angelo’s “Ain’t It Awful” blog. With the help of vocal contributors from a right-wing activist site, Angelo quickly unearthed a pirated draft of speechwriters’ notes for an impending presidential oration.

Tonight the United States President was planning to blandly deny that the cosmos was ending.

The leaked speech made commentary boil like a geyser on Angelo’s catastrophe blog—especially since, unable to keep his loyal users in the dark, he’d been forced to announce to them that their entire Universe was kaput. The likelihood of this event was immediately obvious to loyal fans of “Ain’t It Awful,” and the ripples were spreading fast.

“Listen, Rabbiteen,” said Angelo, tentatively slowing the hearse. “Why bother to find a motel? It’s not like we want to sleep during our last night on Earth. It’d be crazy to waste those precious few remaining hours.”

“Don’t you want to dream one more great dream?”

He turned his thin, abstracted face from the bug-splattered windshield, his expression gentler than she’d expected. “I’d rather post one last great blog-post. Exactly how many minutes do we have left in our earthly existence?”

Their Linux laptops nestled together on the gray-carpeted floor of the hearse, the screens glowing hotly, the power cords jacked into a luxurious double-socketed cigarette-lighter extension. USB jacks sucked internet access from a Fresnel antenna that Angelo had made from metal tape, then jammed on the hearse’s roof.

Rabbiteen plopped her warm laptop onto her skirted thighs. She scrolled through a host of frantic posts from her over-excited readers.

“Still almost five hundred minutes,” she said thoughtfully. “It’s two am here, and the latest doom estimate is for ten-twenty am local time. Hmm. This scientist woman net-friend of mine—Hintika Kuusk from Estonia—she says that, near the end, the force of gravity will become a quantized step function. Six minutes after that, the strong force drops to the point where our quarks and gluons fly apart.”

“And then the Big Splat hits us?”

“Full interbrane contact comes seven yoctoseconds after our protons and neutrons decay.”

“Seven yoctoseconds?” Angelo’s gauzy, policy-oriented knowledge of hard science was such that he couldn’t be entirely sure when Rabbiteen was serious.

“That’s seven septillionths of a second,” clarified Rabbiteen. “A short time, but a definite gap. It’s a shame, really. Thanks to our crude nucleon-based human bodies, we’ll miss the hottest cosmic action since the start of our universe, fourteen billion years ago. But, Angelo, if we hug each other ever so tightly, our quarks will become as one.” And with this, she laughed again.

“You think that’s funny?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t it funny? How could it not be funny? If I let myself cry, that’ll be worse.”

“There’s no time left to weep and mourn, not even for ourselves,” mused Angelo. “I realize that you approach the problem of death in your own way. That motto you posted—‘the dewdrop slides into the shining sea.’ ”

Rabbiteen was moved by the proof that he’d been reading her blog. She clapped her glowing laptop shut and gazed out at the stricken moon above a purple ridge of low mountains. “The moon looks so different now, doesn’t it? It’s redder! The changes in the fundamental constants will affect all electromagnetic phenomena. No more need for fancy big-science instruments, Angelo. We can see the changes in the fundamental constants of physics with our own wet, tender eyeballs.”

She wiped her eyes, smudging her lashes. “In a way, it’s wonderful that everything will dissolve together. The mountains and the moon, the rich and the poor, all the races and colors.”

The road’s fevered white line pulsed against Angelo’s pale blue eyes. When he spoke again his voice had turned grating and paranoid. “I keep trying for the high road, Rabbiteen, but I can’t fully buy that this is the End. I’ve bot a feeling that certain shadowy figures have been preparing for this. There are so many hints on the internet . . . You want to know the real truth about where we’re going?”

“Tell me, Angelo.” Rabbiteen valued his insights into human society, which was a system she herself had trouble confronting.

“Cody calls it the Black Egg. It’s hidden in the Tonopah Test Range, a secret base in Nevada, right near Area 51. He says the fascist slavemasters have built a back-door escape route out of our condemned cosmos.”

“That’s where we’re headed?” said Rabbiteen, sounding dubious. “On Cody’s say-so?”

“Those in the know have an inside track to the Black Egg survival pod against the collapse of the universe. As major intellectual figures on the blogosphere, we should definitely be going there, right? Why should we be left outside the Dr. Strangelove mine-shaft bunker when the lords of creation have their own transhuman immortality?”

Rabbiteen was unconvinced. “Oh, Angelo, why do you always blog so much about rulers and power? Everything’s emergent. The old white men on top are helpless idiots. They’re like foam on a tsunami. Can bacteria stop a bucket of bleach?”

“You’re naïve,” said Angelo loftily. “Do you think it’s mere coincidence that we were contacted and guided by a heavy operator like Cody? You’re a key blogger on weird physics, and I—I rank with the world’s foremost citizen-journalists.”

“But Cody is just some blog commenter,” said Rabbiteen slowly. The frank lunacy of the Black Egg story made her uneasy. “Cody never seemed like a particularly helpful guy to me. He’s more like a snoop, a troll, and a snitch.”

“He’s just geeky, Rabbiteen. Cody doesn’t have a whole lot of human social skills.”

“On my blog he comes across like a stalker.”

“He told me he’s a veteran working physicist employed on black-ops projects by the federal government. A lonely old man whose whole life has been top-secret. I had to work hard at it, but I’ve won Cody over. He never had any trace of freedom in his life, except for the internet. He thinks of you and me as his most intimate friends.”

“Okay, fine,” said Rabbiteen. “Why not the Tonopah Test Range? If that makes you happy.”

But rather than smiling at her agreeability, Angelo was antsy. “I wish you hadn’t said that. Now you’ve got me all worried. What if Cody is lying to me? All that amazing physics data could be clever disinformation. Maybe he’s just some kind of crazy online pervert who, for whatever twisted reason—”

Rabbiteen aimed a brave smile at her friend’s tormented face. “Look, that sign says Tonopah! And there’s a nice little motel.”

Angelo instantly slewed the heavy hearse into the dark, empty parking lot. Despite the late hour, the motel office door yawned open, with a trapezoid of light on the gravel.

Springy on his sneakered feet, Angelo hopped out of the hearse and into the motel office. Stretching the travel kinks from her back, Rabbiteen noticed a dull glow in the valley beyond this ridge. That must be the whipped old mining town of Tonopah. An all-but-defunct burg like that shouldn’t be emitting so much flickering light and hot glare — oh. Tonopah was on fire.

Squinting into the distance, Rabbiteen could make out motorcycles, buzzing Tonopah’s back streets like hornets. Some of the night-riders carried torches, leaving spark-spewing trails in the gloom.

“We don’t want to stay around here,” said Angelo, returning to her. Carefully, disturbingly, he wiped his feet on the gravel, leaving dark stains. Blood.

A vagrant breeze wafted whoops and screams across the dark hills.

“The owner’s been killed?” said Rabbiteen. Hollowness filled her chest. “Oh god, oh god, I don’t want to be slaughtered by psychos! I want to flash out with the Big Splat!”

“Don’t panic,” said Angelo, hugging her. “Don’t panic yet.” He stepped back and showed her a trophy tucked in the back of his belt. A forty-five automatic pistol. “You see, the owner was web-surfing. He had this handgun right next to his mouse—somebody lopped his head clean off while he was staring into his screen.” Angelo handed her the pistol, butt-first. “The clip’s full; that survival newbie never fired one shot in his own defense!”

Rabbiteen shuddered as she handled the weapon. Beyond the motel’s sordid lot, a pair of monster trucks bounced side by side down the two-lane highway, their multiple headlights beaming crazed jittering cones. “Maybe we shouldn’t go through Tonopah.”

“I’ll drive like a maniac, and you’ll fire wildly,” Angelo advised. “So it’ll be fine. Let me give you the précis on this Colt military automatic. As a survivalist, I’ve logged a lot of hours on this model. It’s easy except for the recoil. You hold it in both hands and gently squeeze the trigger. Try that.”

Off at the edge of the motel lot, Rabbiteen saw a suspicious shadow. Something looping, boiling, rippling like heat haze. The head lopper? She hastily squeezed off a shot. The pistol kicked upwards with a flash and a deafening bang. The window of a motel unit blew out with a musical crash of glass.

Then, ominous, total silence.

If there had been any guests in this lonely motel, they were all gone. Or murdered. Yet there was still a roiling, phantom shape in the farthest corner of the parking lot. A midnight dust devil, or a smear of tears across her vision.

It was definitely time to go.

“Let’s access some mash-up internet maps,” said Angelo, powering up the hearse with a biodiesel splutter. “I know the Test Range is on the far side of Tonopah, but of course the site’s fully concealed from the sheep-like American public.”

Rabbiteen piled into the paint-blistered hearse with him, suddenly cheered by the utter recklessness of their plan. The last night of mankind’s existence—how could it be any other way than this? Car doors locked, and windows up, smelly gun near to hand, she crouched elbow to elbow with her friend, connecting to the global mind, comforted by her talismanic laptop.

“Why do you suppose Google Maps doesn’t even list any super-secret labs?” she complained.

Angelo toyed with the wheel, inching the car across the gravel, waiting patiently as a midnight slew of cars blasted from the darkness down Highway 6. “That’s easy. I mean, I’m a dropout from Stanford . . . and Sergey and Larry are both dropouts from Stanford, too. But unlike me, they’re covering for the Man! Because they sold out!”

“Oh, wait,” said Rabbiteen, “Google just linked me to a nutcase map site with tons of great info. Hmm. The Tonopah Test Range is just past the Tonopah airport. It butts into Groom Lake where people see, like, aliens from other dimensions. And, get this, the Test Range has their own secret part, and that’s Area 52.”

“Wow,” said Angelo. A raging eighteen-wheeler spattered gravel across their windshield. “That’s one digit higher than 51.”

Rabbiteen’s iPhone emitted the stunning CLANK CLANK of a steam hammer. She’d once missed a vitally important instant message, so her alert preferences were set to maximum stun.

She bumped her head on the grimy dashboard as she lunged for her sleek device. “It’s Cody! Cody is trying to hit me!”

“Hunh,” said Angelo. “Don’t read it.”

“I hot 2 c u 2 n4k3d,” read Rabbiteen. She glared at Angelo. “Hot to see you two naked? What does that mean? What on earth did you tell that guy?”

“I had to social-engineer him so he’d help us break into the Black Egg. Like I said, Cody is a very lonely old man.”

“You told him that you’d post photos of us naked?”

“No, I didn’t say that exactly,” said Angelo, his voice almost wistful. “It’s worse. I told him I’d stream us having sex on live webcam video.” He straightened his shoulders. “I had to tell him something like that, Rabbiteen. I lied to him. And, really, at this point, so what? What possible difference does it make? The whole universe is about to melt.”

Rabbiteen frowned down at her pistol, turning it over in her hands. She was momentarily tempted to shoot Angelo, but stifled the impulse. It was amazing how many user-friendly little clicks and snicks the pistol had.

“Anyway, my gambit worked on him,” said Angelo. He patted the iPhone, which lay on the seat, its message still showing. “See the digits on the bottom of the screen? Cody also sent you the GPS coordinates to the site.”

He punched tiny buttons on a squat plastic gizmo suction-cupped to the dash of his hearse.

“Continue Highway 6 through Tonopah,” said the genteel female voice of Angelo’s GPS navigation unit. “Turn right at unmarked dirt road number 37A.”

Jaw set, Angelo peeled out of the lot and barreled through the crumbling heart of the stricken desert settlement. Knots of drunken, flare-wielding marauders were barricading the streets with smoldering debris. Angelo accelerated through a flaming police sawhorse, and Rabbiteen braced her heavy pistol in both hands, firing wildly and shrieking flamewar abuse through the open window.

Overawed by the style of the loons in the hearse, the rioters let them pass.

Then they motored sedately through the eastern outskirts of blacked-out Tonopah, past burning tract homes and empty desert shacks, past the silent airport and the abandoned mines.

As they turned off onto the dirt side road, Rabbiteen mimicked the feminine voice of the GPS navigator. “Suggestion. What if I posted naked pictures of myself with this gun?” She shoveled in a fresh chew of betel. “What kind of user response would I get?”

“You mean if your users weren’t torn apart into their constituent quarks?” Angelo smiled and took her hand.

He was feeling buoyant. The world was definitely ending, in fire and blood just as he’d always guessed, yet he’d finally found a woman meant for him. With that sweet, frank way she had of cutting to the core of an issue without ever delivering anything useful, Rabbiteen Chandra was the very soul of bloggerdom.

His last night on Earth felt as vast and endless as a crumpled galaxy, while the full moon had gone the shape and color of a dry-squeezed blood orange. The clumps of sage were pale purple. The world Angelo inhabited had finally come to look and feel just like the inside of his own head. Incredible to think that he and Rabbiteen might be the last human beings ever to witness this landscape. It was as if they owned it.

“Isn’t that a guard house ahead?” said Rabbiteen. “If you want to crash through that, I can lay down some covering fire. At least till I run out of bullets.”

The GPS crooned sedately from the dash. “Proceed though Security Gate 233-X, traveling twenty-two miles further into the Tonopah Test Range to destination Area 52.”

“I’d hoped Cody would be waiting for us at this security gate,” said Angelo, slowing the hearse. “But I guess he never leaves his supercomputer console.” His nerves were fraying again. “The guards around here are brainwashed killing machines. Mindlessly devoted to the fugitive neoconservatives of the Area 52 escape pod. If I stop, they’ll extradite us to Guantanamo. If I pull a U-turn, they’ll chase us down with Predator aircraft. If I barrel through the gate, we’ll smash head-on into their truck-bomb tank traps.”

“Oh, stop talking like that,” said Rabbiteen. “It’s 3 am on their last night on Earth! How devoted to duty can those guys be? Don’t they have any girlfriends? Or kids?”

The glum little concrete guardhouse that defended the Test Range was in fact deserted. The razor-wire chain-link moaned in the wind and the striped traffic arm pointed uselessly at the starry sky.

The hearse rolled into the empty desert compound, the narrow military road gently curving around peaks that sat on the sand like giant Zen boulders. Here and there old war-gamed jeeps had been shot to pieces from helicopters. Except for this ritualized military debris, there was only the moon and the mountains, the silence broken by periodic updates from the GPS unit.

To cover his growing embarrassment, Angelo propped his laptop on the dash. Automatically he clicked for his blog. “Oh my God!”

Terror gripped Rabbiteen’s heart. “What? What now?”

“Look at my traffic spike! My Webalizer stats are right off the charts! Drudge Report, Boing Boing, Huffington Post, they’re all sucking my dust! I rule the net tonight! Everybody’s linking to me!”

“How about my blog?” she asked. “I blogged the Big Splat before you did—”

“This is fantastic!” continued Angelo. “I’m finally fully validated as an independent citizen journalist!”

Rabbiteen jealously moused around his screen. “Dammit, my own site has totally crashed! Why doesn’t your traffic max out when you get Slashdotted so hard?”

“My ‘Ain’t It Awful’ site is scalable, babe. I pay full service on the Amazon web-cloud and they just keep adding servers. This is the last night on Earth. No one will ever beat my post for traffic. I’m the greatest blogger in the history of the planet.”

Rabbiteen considered this boast. Though galling, it had to be true. Her boyfriend was the greatest blogger in the world. Except nobody would really call Angelo her boyfriend, because they’d never even kissed.

Feeling letdown, she stroked the glossy screen of her iPhone, scroll-flicking her way through a rolling list of friends and landing on, why not, Prof. Dr. Hintika Kuusk, the Estonian string theorist. Dr. Kuusk was a kindly, grandmotherly scholar; a woman of the world who’d always been very kind to the gawky physics enthusiast named “Rabbiteen Chandra.”

Rabbiteen pecked out a text message on the phone’s eerie virtual keyboard. “About to have sex with Angelo Rasmussen inside Area 52.”

She thumb-smeared SEND and launched her confession into cellphonespace. She was glad she’d told a confidante. Blogger that she was, it always felt better to tell somebody than to do something.

Moments passed, and then the phone emitted its signature clank. A sober incoming reply from Hintika Kuusk: “Fare thee well, Rabbiteen.”

“Farewell 4ever Dr. Kuusk,” typed Rabbiteen, her heart filling. She slid a glance over at Angelo, who was steering with one hand while trying to type with the other. She considered cozying up to him and working her wiles, but just then, with another clank, here came a mass-mailing to Hintika Kuusk’s extensive buddy list: “OMG OMG OMG! Rabbiteen-Karmic-Reality is hooking up with Angelo-Aint-It-Awful!”


Be sure to read
the exciting conclusion
in our February issue,
on sale now.


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"Colliding Branes" by Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling copyright © 2009, with permission of the authors.

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